Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Now Reality Returns

The holidays are over; now reality returns. Reality! What a concept the comedian wrote. For reasons that escape me I have neglected this diary for most of a month. As a welcome return to my high school scholars the doorbell rang this past Saturday morning. I could see a silhouette through the dark green curtain covering the oval window in the door. I suspected the identity of the silhouette waiting for a stranger to open the door.

The previous Monday a new student had transferred into the school. His mother had moved him and herself into a very low rent district of town perhaps one step ahead of the law. Matt is a pleasant young man with an unusual hairdo. He tends to comb his wet blonde hair forward toward his eyes. As it dries, laying flat on top of his head, the ends curl upward on his forehead. In an attempt to completely cover his young babyish face he tries to grow a beard on his chin. The wispy hair does little to cover his chinny-chin-chin. The one thing he has going for him; he is smarter then my average SPED student. In his last school he had been placed in an honors English class. The only reason he failed the class were the thirty-five days he occupied a cubicle in the in-school-suspension portable classroom.

Through the green curtain I saw the curled hair on his forehead. He was looking down at a folder he held in his hand. I unlocked the door and swung it open. He looked up and was ready to say his memorized speech. However, the best he could muster was a shocked, “holy shit”!

“It’s good to see you also Matt,” I replied to his surprised words.

“I a, I mean a, I didn’t know you lived here?”

“Well, well, surprise to you. What can I do for you?”

Before he answered I knew why he was at my door. He was completing a probation period imposed by the local juvenile judge. A lady that had ran on one platform and like
many other politicians had changed after winning elections. His sentence was a year’s probation as long as he held a job. Otherwise, if he lost his job, he would finish his sentence in the juvenile detention center. The job was selling local newspaper subscriptions with most of his salary going to pay court cost. He had been blanketing most residential areas of this fast growing town.

“Okay, here’s your free newspaper. You want to buy a subscription? You can get a five-day a week subscription for $10.00 a month, or Saturday and Sunday for $8.50 a month, or you can just make a donation.”

Matt had not looked at me from the time I opened the door. He stood there with his sagging pants, Artic Polar coat, untied Nike shoes, and hairy chin waiting for me to choose a subscription.

“How much longer are you on probation,” I asked?

“Four hundred dollars worth.”

I wondered about the legal lesson he would take away from his probation experience? My guess was the same lesson he garnered from his prior two probations. Briefly a picture crossed my mind. A picture of him appropriately clothed, in honors English, passing with a solid A, and colleges lining up to offer him scholarships.

“How about a donation,” I asked?

“If that’s what you want to do.”

Leaving him standing on the small concrete porch I fished fourteen dollars from my wallet. “All I have is this,” I told him over my shoulder.

“Whatever,” he said.

My ideal picture of the future was quietly shattered and replaced with a mental slide show of poverty, despair, evictions, minimum wage jobs between jail sentences, several children with different partners, and no high school diploma or college degree. He pocketed the fourteen dollars and walked off down the street to the next house.

“Thanks man. See ya Monday.”

…………I could be wrong?


There are days when I'm glad I chose writing as a profession and not, say, teaching school children. As a writer, I have solitude as a constant companion during work hours, with only that fickle lady, my muse, to deal with. But even she can be wooed with fresh coffee. But look at what public school teachers have to deal with. I'm thinking specifically of a recent incident at a Clarksville middle school where a teacher laid a hand on a student's arm to prevent him from leaving the class without his permission.

The incident became big because the student's mother chose to make it so. A complaint was made, charges were filed, because "strong force" she said had been applied on her son. And so it came about that a hand on an arm became tantamount to assault, and a teacher, 34-year unblemished teaching record notwithstanding, received a reprimand and the incident became front-page news at the local daily.

I sometimes wonder how public school teachers find the will and motivation to continue doing their jobs. You have to hope that most of them, or at least some, found their way into this, one of the "noble" professions, for the right reasons: to make a difference, mold impressionable minds, impart education, be a catalyst in at least some students' lives. And you wonder how long it took for them to feel deflated by some of the realities of their job.

Look at what is on their plate: A low starting salary and a continuing one that is hardly commensurate to their qualifications or the work they do; a society that expects miracles from them; raw material to work with that is diverse in every way imaginable — diverse in terms of ethnic and religious background, and diverse in terms of socio-economic background — kids who come from low-income, unsupervised households; kids from middle-class households who are unsupervised because their parents are too busy; kids from the other end of the spectrum — from households with high-strung parents who over-manage and over-schedule their kids' lives.
And let's not forget the federal standards that ask teachers, in effect, to put all these different kids onto the education assembly line and produce products with a decent education. If you ask me, teachers ought to be paid a king's ransom.

But I haven't yet come to that category of Obnoxious Parents, a category that needs a couple of paragraphs, and can't be dismissed in a sentence or two. Apparently, there is a new breed of parents that has sprung up in recent years; a breed that has taken parental involvement to new heights, that sees their child being always in the right and school authorities in the wrong, and that is combative and confrontational with teachers.

Time magazine carried a report on this trend last year, and asked teachers to name the hardest challenge they faced in their jobs. The answer was not limited resources or standardized tests or unruly students but dealing with parents, which is saying something.

As a parent of two school-going children, I know the difficulties. You want to stay involved in your child's school and life because the times demand it. For an increasing number of parents, however, it seems to have gone from simple, lower-case parental involvement to bold-type, upper-case PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT, often to the detriment of the child.

Part of being a columnist is to be negative, and I don't want to be unduly that. I know that there are fine teachers in every school district and motivated students and moments of quiet glory when things click together marvelously. But when members of the public sit around and tut-tut about public school education, as we sometimes do, we would do well to remember that schools can only be as good or bad as the societies around them, and reflect, in a way, what goes on outside — parenting styles, attitudes toward education, the after-school hours kids spend on multiple media sources thus hampering their education, and much, much more.

Public school teachers can't tread on water, but we sometimes expect them to do just that.